WWI Image in Focus: Hyde County African American Servicemen

Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

One of the challenging things as an archivist working with military materials is finding and identifying World War I materials for North Carolina African Americans, particularly photographs. As photography by the general public was in its infancy in the early twentieth century, not everyone had a lot of photographs of themselves or their families. Indeed, a number of North Carolina veterans’ portraits from the war have family members’ writing on the back stating that the photograph is the only copy of a soldier’s photograph they have. Photographs could be expensive for the average person, and smaller cameras were a relatively recent invention. More than likely, a solder would go to a portrait studio to get an image of himself.

A majority of African Americans in North Carolina during WWI were relatively poor, and few original photographs of black service individuals have survived. When we can identify images of black soldiers accurately, each new image discovered or identified can help add perspective on the war from all peoples involved. Even when we cannot identify the individuals in photographs, identifying where they are from is important in helping to represent military service individuals from specific parts of the state.

By 1920, the North Carolina Historical Commission (from which the State Archives of North Carolina comes) had received a set of original WWI materials from a volunteer war records collector in Hyde County, N.C.—George Peabody Carter. Carter was a 47-year old man living in Fairfield, N.C. at the time of America’s entrance into the war. He helped organize the collection of a small number of items from Hyde County in the war. His most significant contribution perhaps was saving a photograph of a group of unidentified Hyde County African American servicemen.

Little was known about this image for years. Its location, date taken, identity of the men, and purpose for being taken were unknown. No information was written on the back of the image. In 2015, detailed research was conducted on the image revealed a few things. The photograph is indeed from Hyde County. The men are seen wearing ribbons or medals of some sort. It is unknown for sure what the purpose of the ribbons or medals were. It was thought that the men are pictured around the time of their draft registration or before being sent to training camp. The building the men are standing in front of is a grocery store, and is very similar to a grocery store in the town of Fairfield as of 1918 (see below photograph). The location of the building is not 100%, so the image description does not state for sure it was taken in Fairfield.

If the photograph shows the men after draft registration, then it would be in Fairfield—as Fairfield was the location for the WWI federal draft registration in 1917 for Hyde County. It could show the men upon return from war, or before they leave for military training camp—as all men sent by the Hyde County Local Draft Board to camp left from Fairfield. Because of this, the image could have been taken anytime between 1917 and 1919.

But we know the men are from Hyde County. We know they were military servicemen in WWI. And we know this is the only group photograph of African American North Carolinian servicemen from Hyde County in the State Archives’ holdings (and possibly in an archives or museum in the state). We may not know their names, but we know African American men such as these gave as many sacrifices for their country as their white counterparts. It’s not a lot of information, but the image itself speaks volumes.

This blog post is part of the State Archives of North Carolina’s World War I Social Media Project, an effort to bring original WWI archival materials to the public through the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ (NCDNCR) various social media platforms, in order to increase access to the items during the WWI centennial celebration by the state of North Carolina.

Between February 2017 and June 2019, the State Archives of North Carolina will be posting blog articles, Facebook posts, and Twitter posts, featuring WWI archival materials which are posted on the exact 100th anniversary of their creation during the war. Blog posts will feature interpretations of the content of WWI documents, photographs, diary entries, posters, and other records, including scans of the original archival materials, held by the State Archives of North Carolina, and will be featured in NCDNCR’s WWI centennial blog.